What “Write What You Know” Really Means

I have a confession. I love video games. Can’t explain why. Maybe it’s the dopamine. Don’t really care. I enjoy them, and depending on the game, find them relaxing.

They’ve also taught me something about life. In the world of video games, that something is called grinding.

“In video games, grinding is performing repetitive tasks, usually for a gameplay advantage or loot but in some cases for purely aesthetic or cosmetic benefits.” — Wikipedia

Repetitive tasks. As in, not dramatic or particularly interesting. Hmmm…that sounds so familiar, doesn’t it?

Like it, or not, grinding is what most of us do for most of our lives. It’s normal, usually necessary, and part of life if you’re having a pretty good one. On the action side of human experience, it’s what we know.

Typical grinding does not make for good fiction.

In the ’90s, I volunteered as a judge for an up-and-coming script contest called Blue Cat. It’s a big deal now, but back then, it was just getting started. I read a script by a new writer that told the story of four college guys grinding through their average lives. The first twenty pages, which represents twenty minutes of screen time, were set in a bar where they sat around drinking pitchers of beer and talking about average college life.

As far as active narrative goes, unless these college guys cheated on their social studies final using notes the professor’s daughter sold them, and now they’re freaked out because she’s pissed that one of them got her pregnant, but they all secretly slept with her, and….

Well, readers are falling asleep.

I hope this writer eventually went on to make his writing dreams a reality, but at this beginning point, it was a battle to get through those one-hundred pages. It also taught me something that turned my own career around.

Writing what you know isn’t necessarily about writing the action of life which you’ve experienced. It means writing what you know about being human.

And I bet you have a lot of experience with that.

Because to be human means knowing grief and joy, anger and love, fear, duty, cowardice, and kindness. It means sometimes acting with cruelty and having others do the same to you. And with growth, it means forgiving.

At its core, being human is to get beat down and give up, and then push yourself back to your feet to continue on. It’s complex, painful, triumphant, and about relationships. With others and yourself.

To fully engage readers, writing of any kind must be about the human experience. This is what bonds readers to a story. This is what makes them identify with your characters as they take the active narrative journey with them.

What you know about being human makes your readers care about your characters and love your books. No matter what you’re writing. No matter whether the action is quiet or epic.

All successful authors do this.

For example, I’m confident you’ve never time traveled to 18th century Scotland from the 1940s. But most of us, if not all, have fallen in love, experienced times when we didn’t fit in, and have felt lost, frightened, and desperate to return to safer ground. (Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon).

Many people live in New Jersey near Newark. A lot of us have a quirky family member or two, troublesome love lives, and eat more junk food than we should. Few (or dare I say, none), are average New Jersey 30-something women solving murders as snarky amateur bounty hunters. (The Stephanie Plum series, by Janet Evanovich).

Writing what you know isn’t about narrating the details of life’s daily grind. Writing what you know means creating characters who are relatable because they reflect what it means to be human.

Which they then do while struggling through experiences more interesting than ours.

See you on the bestsellers list.

Writing in Sprints

As I’ve discussed ad nauseum, and will continue to do, finishing the starter draft of your entire novel is crucial to your success. One technique that will help you achieve this, is outlined in the article about the value of dictation.

Now it’s time to talk about writing in sprints, another valuable tool in your novelist toolbox.

Sprint writing first became popular with the advent of NANOWRIMO, or National Novel Writing Month, which launched in 1999. Now their technique has become a staple of novelist everywhere.

The concept is simple. Set a timer, usually from 10 to 20 minutes. Write as many words as you can before it goes off.

The emotional complexities are not as simple, but still manageable. Your goal is not great writing, good writing, or clear writing. Your only goal is to know what new scene you want to write, and then get as many words down as you can in the time allotted.

You probably already see the similarity between dictation and sprint writing. Both offline the inner critic/editor, both get a lot of words down. Both are improved later during passes.

And best of all, both move you forward toward writing the entire starter draft of your novel.

Here are some more resources for you to explore about sprint writing:

How to Write in Sprints and Why

5 Types of Writing Sprints — And Why You Need This Tool

And as an bonus, one of my all-time favorite resources on writing, Chris Fox Writes, who is mentioned in the blog above.

See you on the bestsellers list!

Use Dictation to Write the Fastest Starter Draft of Your Life

Today, our writers group met, and we talked about doing sprints at our meetings, as well as giving feedback. During the conversation about starter drafts, dictation came up again, since I’m a big fan of this particular writing tool.

We decided a supplemental blog about dictation and another about Sprint Writing would be helpful, not only to the SAFW group, but to other writers, as well.


Advantage #1: Dictation is fast.

Popular Mechanics wrote about a study done at Standford that showed speech-to-text was 3x faster than typing. Since their test was done using iPhones, I’m going to go out on a limb and predict you’ll find your results are even better.

I’ll get to why in a moment, but for now, I can say that to date, my dictation rate is one page, or 250 words, every five minutes. When I doubt the Dragon (Nuance Dragon Dictate program), and go back to the keyboard, a page takes me 30 minutes. The reason related to dictation Advantage #2.

Advantage #2: Dictation keeps you moving forward.

Editing is challenging using dictation, which means you’re motivated to keep going and not pause to make corrections. Which brings me to why my time per page is 6x slower when I type.

When I use the keyboard to write, I stop and fix stuff, go down rabbit holes, get sidelined by research, and generally tank. Darn that inner critic/editor.

Advantage #3: Dictation allows your creative side to flow.

Once you get used to it, dictation is a wonderful tool for letting your subconscious come out and play. And when it does, you might find yourself talking a five page scene in 30 minutes, or less. Take that, inner critic/editor.

As your subconscious gets its say, you’ll quickly become addicted to cranking out pages. When that happens, you won’t want to stop and make them perfect. It’s more fun to see chapters getting done.

Advantage #4: You’ll finish the Starter Draft of your book.

One of the keys of getting used to dictation is mentally reassuring that inner critic/editor that they will also get their say. Just not right now. Because until you’ve written your book from start to finish, you can’t accurately edit it. How could you? You don’t know everything that will be revealed from writing it, yet.

For me, dictation is the perfect way to finish the starter draft. After that, it’s time for passes and hands on (the keyboard) improvements. Which is when the inner critic/editor gets to join the fun with your creativity.

Just like the first stage is for the creative mind, the final is for the editor. This is when grammar, wordsmithing, typos, and faux pas are found. Which I mention to reassure you that, really, it’s okay if the dictation/starter draft isn’t “perfect.” It isn’t meant to be.


since I was first introduced to Dragon Dictate in the early 2000s, I’ve always favored it. But it might not be right for everyone, and even better, there are some free options available, now, including built-in speech-to-text in MS Word, and IOS.

How to Use Speech-to-Text in Word

How to Use Speech-to-Text on a Mac

Nuance Dragon Dictate

Regarding Dragon, I use the Home version for the PC, but have had it on Macs in the past. The program costs $150 to own, at the time of this writing, no subscription fees. Sometimes you can find better deals on eBay, but be careful to vet the seller before you do. Amazon also offers the program for sale.

Nuance has a phone app, as well, so that you can dictate when away from your computer. I’ve found the Dragon Anywhere App to be useful, but at a subscription cost of $15/mos, or $150/year, it’s not as cost-effective as having it on your computer. I continuously drop the subscription and pick it up again because of the steep price tag.


First, be patient with yourself and your chosen program. For one, dictating requires that you speak slower than you’re accustomed to do. And in the case of Dragon, it also takes time for the program to learn how you speak so it can increase accuracy.

As an example, my Dragon program recently informed me it was ready to update its accuracy — after 30k words of dictation on my current novel.

It also takes time to get used to creating using a new method. It feels awkward, at first. Keep reminding yourself that it’s worth the effort. Because it is! Now that I’m firmly on the dictation dark side, I’ll never go back to my old way of creating a starter draft.

It’s also smart to invest in a good headset, which can make a difference in accuracy, as well. I’ve used Jabra Evolve 40 UC Stereo Wired Headset / Music Headphones for almost two years now, and love them. At the time of this writing, they’re selling for $109 on Amazon.

Next, it pays to learn a few basic commands so your dictated copy comes closer to what you need. With dictation, you have to say everything you want. Because, well, it’s only a program. It can’t read your mind…yet.

That means (comma) even punctuation (period)

Yup, that’s how you would say that sentence for transcription.

Here are the commands which will get you through most of your novel’s starter draft:

  • Period
  • Comma
  • Begin quote
  • End quote
  • New line
  • Open pren
  • Close pren
  • Em Dash
  • Hyphen
  • Explanation point
  • Question mark
  • Initial cap

Most of the above commands are self-explanatory and you’ll quickly get the hang of them. “Open pren” and “Close pren” are for parentheses. These are handy because you’ll want to use them when you don’t know something, but need to keep moving forward, as we discussed above.

Here’s an example from the starter draft of my current project, which is a Victorian mystery:

Charlotte stopped in the shade of the large (tree) overhanging the wall. “Only one of those I would consider to be true.”

In this case, when I go back to do passes, I plan to look up types of trees found in gardens in Essex.

Here’s another example:

Her reputation as a contributor of ‘new information’ crime articles in the Countess’ paper was well known, approved by Princess Louise, and the perfect cover for her investigations. She had also found them to be an excellent way to ease the pain of keeping so many secrets.
(I’ll need to work out some ages and time lines to solidify the family relations.)

In this case, I used parentheses to leave a reminder that at a later time, I need to look through my notes and characters and establish consistency and logic. By the way, when I added this note, I had to mentally tell my inner critic/editor, who was raising hell, that there’s a time and place for everything, so cool it.

It pays to consider dictation to speed up and simplify your writing practice. And if you do, give it a fair chance before you make up your mind. Talking a book feels weird at first, but as you get the hang of it, you will love the results.

See you on the bestsellers list!

Interesting Characters Mean Easier Writing

Characters are the core of any story, plain and simple. Readers love a book because of the people in it. Even if they don’t realize it.

Listen to people talk about their favorite books. “I love Stephanie Plum books. They’re so much fun.” “Harry Potter books are the best.” “Sherlock Holmes? Incredible.”

Sure, the action and settings are fun. But at the end of the day, it’s about taking a journey of challenge and growth as someone else and making new friends along the way. Our fascination with each other is part of being human.

Which means the key to attracting readers is creating interesting characters.


Most writers have heard of assigning a main character traits, right? Things like, intelligent, secretive, impulsive, generous.

There’s nothing wrong with that, and in fact, there are important methods to making it work. These include having subtext, and opposing traits for built-in dilemmas.

But there are layers beneath that which really make a character come to life. Even better, these layers give you a lot of material for their story.


The first step in creating deeper characters is fundamental to great writing and a mistake most new writers make. They love their characters and don’t want to hurt them. As an add-on to this, they make their characters wonderful people who are very nice.

In life, I highly recommend choosing friends who land mostly in this category. In fiction, a character like this equals boring.


Instead of playing nice, embrace that your job as a novelist is to challenge flawed characters and challenge them hard. This is how we, as writers, explore and mimic the nature of the human condition in all its ugliness and beauty.

To help with that important calling, give your main characters:

  • Secrets
  • Hidden Agendas
  • Wounds
  • Triggers


Even nice people have secrets. No person on this planet is all sunshine and unicorns. And that’s part of this layer. More specifically for the purpose of your project, they have secrets which impact the situations in their story.

These can be big secrets, like they’re a murderer; less dramatic as in they’ve quietly loved another character most of their lives; or even softer, like the young boy who eats the pan of brownies, and then lets his brother take the blame.


This layer is often connected to secrets, but it doesn’t have to be. For example, imagine a wife who has always wanted a child and a husband who does not. She’s made no secret of her desire, and her hidden agenda is to get pregnant.

But covert plans can also be big, like when the young hero of a fantasy novel fights to learn magic so she can take over the kingdom. They can be more localized like a teacher working behind the scenes to frame a coworker who wronged him.

The key to this, and all layers, is to brainstorm what each main character wants, and then ask yourself “What’s beneath that.”

Finding layers is always about digging deeper.


I’ve found that most writers understand giving a character wounds. This usually manifests as the protagonist having some past significant trauma, like abuse as a child, or PTSD from war.

Those experiences certainly qualify, as wounds must be traumatic to that individual. But they can also come from a broader playing field than these types of severe events. The key is that a character’s wound must add to, and support, the story you’re telling.

For example, a messy divorce may make it impossible for a character to trust. The death of a loved one could mean a character is now obsessed with control.

Failed dreams might have turned them bitter and vengeful. A limiting illnesses, even as common as severe allergies, could make them obsessed with a cure, afraid to leave their home, or hitchhiking to the desert to live off the land.

As you explore this layer, also ask yourself how other characters might exploit this wound. How will they use it to manipulate, defeat, or control?


What makes your character go ballistic? That’s the core of digging for an interesting trigger in your main characters.

Is it bullying? Not being trusted? Their wound? A phobia? A threat?

This layer, like the others, deserves to be explored deeply, as it conveys elements about who your character is and what makes them tick.

As you do so, also ask yourself how they respond when they’re triggered. Do they lie? Lose their temper? Withdraw?


Finally, as you investigate these deeper aspects of your main characters, allow your imagination to spin off other layers, such as their core hope and fear, wants and needs, or the face they show to the word versus the dominant emotion seething beneath.

In other words, dig, explore, and have fun. You’ll find when you’re done that you have a rich selection of interesting layers to explore as you challenge your characters on their journeys.

See you on the bestsellers list!

Information in this article is a reflection of the excellent content found in Hal Croasmun’s Binge Worthy TV Bootcamp, one of ScreenwritingU’s online classes.